Zaynab Mohamed stands for a photo in her downtown Minneapolis campaign offices on December 1, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Zaynab Mohamed, 24, is running to represent District 63 in the state Senate, which includes the southeast corner of Minneapolis, the eastern part of Richfield, and Fort Snelling. A resident of Minneapolis, Zaynab has served as a community advocacy manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota. She is also a policy aide for Minneapolis City Councilmember Jason Chavez.

Zaynab’s answers have been edited below for length and clarity.

Why are you running for office?

I’m running because of the disparities in our state. Whenever we talk about issues like criminal justice reform, public safety, housing insecurity, health care, affordability, I know what it’s like. I know what it feels like not to have health care ever in my life, and having it for the first time because I’m now working in government. That should be a human right. As a Black woman, who’s had my mother go to the hospital, who’s had friends and family who have been pregnant as Black women, I know the disparities within health care that Black women face. That’s not a representation we have at the state level.

We elected the first Latina (Senator Patricia Torres Ray) to the Senate 16 years ago. She will potentially be my predecessor. And I think that shows you like when people of color, women of color, Black and brown women show up, they want to bring others who look like them into that space. If you look at the Senate, it looks the same. It’s majority white, older men. I’m running because I think we need representation that understands lived experience and policy experience, and I have both.

What would it mean for you to potentially be among the first Black women elected to the Minnesota Senate?

When I first thought about running, something that crossed my mind is, I hope I don’t go in there alone as the first Black woman elected. We need more. We need more than five. There will be people at the Senate for the first time who have experienced the disparities Black women and brown women experience every day living in the state of Minnesota—from an educational perspective, from a health care perspective, from criminal justice and public safety perspectives. These are issues that we do not have a representation in, and to have that would mean a lot to the broader community. There’s going to be conversations that have never been had ever before.

What do you hope to accomplish, especially as Minnesotans recover post-pandemic? 

One of the reasons why I’m running, that will be a priority for the state, is fighting for a $15 minimum wage. I was talking to my mother about this. She works at a factory, and has been since she immigrated to this country almost 15 years ago, and she’s making $13 an hour. We lived off that our entire lives. To be able to pass a $15 minimum wage would be incredible. It would lift the voices of working-class people. 

Having job sites unionizing. It’s important that we empower people to be able to show up in their workplaces and ask for livable wages and work conditions that work for them. We’re seeing teachers go on a strike for the first time in 50 years asking for just the bare minimum. 

The other one is health care. That has been a priority. I have health care now for the first time because I’m working for the city of Minneapolis. The only time I was ever able to go to the hospital without worrying about money was when COVID hit. That showed me and showed the state what our government is capable of doing. So it’s important that we have healthcare for everyone regardless of their job, immigration status, or who they are. 

And obviously, public safety. We often talk about crime, and it’s a real thing happening. I think we should work on it as a community and we can also work on more robust criminal justice that works for everyone regardless of race and ethnicity.

Let’s dive into a specific policy issue. As you know the teachers in Minneapolis are currently on strike. What would your plan be to address funding for things like English language and special education services? 

I graduated high school because I had a Black educator who mentored me. Fighting for our educators for me looks like fully funding our public education system. We have a $9 billion budget surplus. There is no reason for us to not fully fund our public education. So expanding public education to include universal pre-k and comprehensive childcare is another thing that’s important. We’ve seen immigrant parents who often don’t work because they have to choose between putting their kids through childcare or staying home.That struggle often leads to education disparities. ELL and ESL courses are courses that we need to fully fund. As somebody who wasn’t born in this country and immigrated with my family at the age of 9, I went through ESL courses. That’s how I was able to learn English and then educate my mother. In the district that I’m running in, we have one of the largest Latinx communities. So I think that’s really going to be important in our district.

We’ve seen just how difficult it is to operate in a divided legislature and Republican-majority Senate. If the same outcome occurs in November, how do you plan to push for the DFL’s agenda while also engaging with Republicans?

I think it’s important that we engage our Republican colleagues because often they are representing areas that have people of color, that have immigrant communities. We have large Muslim communities out in Rochester, and in a number of areas that Republican colleagues are currently representing. It’s important that we encourage those constituents to also be engaged in their government, with their senators, and speak to them about the issues that matter to them.

I plan on going into a majority Democratic state Senate. That’s my plan. I’m not running in an election to just win 63, I’m hoping that we flip some seats and hopefully keep the House. Regardless, we still have to work with our Republican colleagues. What matters to your district and how can we work across the aisle together? 

How do you plan to engage immigrant communities and communities of color?

Our district has a lot of Latinx communities who have been very well-represented by Patricia and other immigrants as well. She was the biggest champion when it came to driver’s licenses for all and other issues that are affecting our immigrant communities. As an immigrant, it’s clear that I’m going to be championing immigrant issues. I currently work for Jason Chavez, a Minneapolis city council member who is a Latinx man in our district. We’re often talking about what it means to have our communities work together from an East African and Latinx perspective. We make up a majority of the immigrant communities in the state. We have been very consistent in engaging our immigrant communities since we’ve started this campaign.

Communities of color have felt a lot of trauma—going through a pandemic that disproportionately impacted them, living through the killing of George Floyd and the uprising that followed—how would you describe the mood of Minnesotans right now?

People, regardless of their community, are exhausted over this ideology and political landscape we’re living in. We are conditioned to think of everything from a political perspective. We can talk politics, but when it comes to issues that are affecting Black and brown people, we can’t politicize those issues and we have done that way too much over the last few years. 

Whenever Black and brown people show up and say, ‘I’m not okay with this,’ people make it a point to politicize it and fight it from an ideological perspective. As a community member, and somebody who’s worked on a number of these issues over the last few years, I’m also over the politics.

*Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article said that if she is elected, Zaynab Mohamed would become the youngest person to serve in the state Senate.

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...